Sarkozy in pension showdown as street protests escalate
French students joined more than a million striking workers Tuesday in the biggest protests so far against President Nicolas Sarkozy's plan to hike the retirement age to 62.
Some strikers decided to prolong their stoppages to try and make Sarkozy give up the pension plans that are the cornerstone of the right-wing leader's reform agenda and which he says are needed to slash France's budget deficit.
Students and school pupils broadened the movement and their participation -- along with the plans to make some strikes open-ended -- was seen as an escalation of what has become the toughest battle in Sarkozy's presidency.
Tuesday's nationwide streets protests were the biggest since the anti-reform battle began earlier this year, unions and police said, estimating the number of demonstrators at 3.5 million and 1.23 million respectively.
"The only thing that will make the government back down is to prolong the strikes," said an aeronautics technician, who gave his name as Jacques, as he marched in the southwestern city of Bordeaux.
As a huge crowd of protestors snaked its way noisily though the streets of Paris near the national assembly, Prime Minister Francois Fillon defended the pension plans during a rowdy parliamentary session.
"We are determined to carry through this reform," he said.
But opposition Socialist leader Martine Aubry accused him of overseeing a reform that "symbolises all the injustices and inequalities that characterise his policies and which the French find intolerable."
Operations at 11 of France's 12 mainland oil refineries were disrupted and 56 tankers were stuck waiting off the Mediterranean port of Marseille as petrol and dock workers held an open-ended strike.
Travellers faced major delays, with up to half the flights to and from Paris Orly airport and one in three at the capital's Charles de Gaulle-Roissy and the smaller Paris Beauvais cancelled.
Budget airline Ryanair alone cancelled 250 flights to and from France and its boss Michael O'Leary said striking air traffic controllers were "the modern equivalent of highwaymen" who should be legally banned from striking.
Just one in three TGV high-speed trains was running, although Eurostar trains between Paris and London operated normally. Paris commuter and metro trains were also hit as transport workers walked off the job.
Train workers voted to renew their strike and the SNCF national rail company said services would likely be as badly disrupted on Wednesday as on Tuesday.
Students at around 400 high schools across the country built barricades with plastic wheelie bins or used other methods to try to prevent other pupils attending classes, the education ministry said.
A CSA opinion poll said 69 percent of French people back the strike, with 61 percent in favour of more open-ended industrial action.
The government had hoped the demonstrations would fizzle out after Tuesday's marches and strikes, but it is also worried that the anti-reform movement may become more radical and trigger riots alongside the so-far peaceful marches.
Meanwhile, the reform bill is edging closer to becoming law.
Late on Monday, French senators definitively passed a key measure, raising the age for a full state pension from 65 to 67. Both houses of parliament have already approved hiking the retirement age from 60 to 62.
That is the most hotly contested part of the package which Sarkozy says could save 70 billion euros (90 billion dollars) by 2030. France's public deficit is around eight percent of GDP, well above the eurozone target of three percent.
Unions and opposition politicians say the plan puts an unfair burden on workers and have made alternative proposals to fix the deficit.
Pensions are a key plank in the reform agenda of Sarkozy, whose poll ratings are at their lowest since he came to power in 2007, as he eyes reelection in 2012.
The Senate's deliberations are to last until Friday and the government hopes for the reform to be approved by the end of the month.
© 2010 AFP